Monday, August 27, 2007

Chapter 3 from: J.J. Ray (Ed.) "Conservatism as Heresy". Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co., 1974

Is There a Minerals and Energy Crisis?

John Ray

IT SEEMS EMINENTLY commonsense to say that if we are steadily using up our minerals and fossil fuels we must eventually run out, and the sooner we start preparing against that eventuality the better. The fact that we are steadily discovering more deposits of minerals may help postpone but not cancel the day we run out.

An extremely relevant consideration to us, however, is just when that day is due. As far as energy is concerned, the projection must be to millions of years in the future. Match that against the mere six thousand years of our recorded history. True, our fossil fuels will not last that long. Oil may run out within the lifetime of most people now living. Coal may last no more than a thousand years. But nuclear energy and solar power are practically limitless. Already Britain gets twenty per cent of its power from nuclear energy and if it can get that, there is no reason (other than suffering a slightly higher cost) why it cannot get the total. This cannot be an immediate or very short-time transformation. It takes years to build nuclear power stations and a sudden cut-off of Arab oil or some other such man-made limitation will cause temporary disruption, but there are no serious long-term problems.

'But even uranium will run out eventually!' True. But we really have no idea when. Uranium has only recently become an economically useful mineral so exploration has hardly begun. Even so, the already-known reserves will at least last us through the next century. This is particularly so when we realize that there are already in commission in Russia and at Dounreay in Scotland 'fast breeder' nuclear reactors which enable all of the uranium mined to be used, instead of just a small part of it.

Even uranium, however, is merely a transitional fuel. The fuel of the future is sea water -- or the hydrogen which is one of its components. Hydrogen will be used in the future as both a chemical and as a nuclear fuel. As a nuclear fuel it (or its isotope, deuterium) will be used in a fusion reaction, with helium as an end-product. Just as the H-bomb produces far more energy than does an A-bomb, a fusion reaction with hydrogen produces far more energy than a fission reaction with uranium. And the beauty of it is that so little hydrogen is required to do this. Therefore the amount of seawater we have should last us practically forever.

There are great engineering problems in setting up a controlled fusion reaction. So much energy (heat) is produced that the process cannot be contained in a solid container. It must be contained in energy (magnetic) fields. Engineering in energy is naturally a much less developed art than engineering in metals. Even so, the task has already been accomplished. Net energy production by thermonuclear (fusion) means has been carried out, although only for extremely short periods. Seeing that nobody had even heard of nuclear power only thirty years ago, this is very rapid progress indeed. The technical problems will certainly have been overcome long before we need to rely on this source of power some centuries hence.

'But thermonuclear power is certainly not going to be very portable. What is going to fuel the cars and trucks of the future?' The answer to this also involves hydrogen from seawater, only in this case as a recyclable chemical fuel rather than as a consumable nuclear fuel. Once you have a source of power -- be it coal, oil, nuclear or thermonuclear -- you have various options open to you for storing it or converting it to portable form. The electric battery you have in your car is perhaps the most familiar example of this. Another option is to use your power source to break down water into its chemical components, oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen can then be stored and used as a chemical fuel in much the same way as we now use petrol. Unlike petrol, however, hydrogen is completely non-polluting and completely recyclable. For this reason, it may come to be used even before petrol runs out. The reason it is non-polluting and recyclable is that when it is burnt it simply recombines with atmospheric oxygen to become water again. As long as you have a source of power, it is the everlasting fuel. Every gutter becomes part of a re-cycling system. Our bodies are as well adapted to dealing with water suspended in the atmosphere as they are not adapted to dealing with the sulphur dioxide that petrol at present puts there. The only reason that hydrogen is not at present used is cost and the fact that it requires a pressure vessel to store it rather than the simple sheet steel tank that presently suffices for petrol. Insofar as it is a worse polluter, then, we must welcome the fact that petroleum is running out.

'But what about nuclear waste-products? Surely they are the worst polluters of all!' This is so. But even that is a transitional problem and their production and disposal is at least far, far more carefully supervised than is the production and disposal of other waste-products. It is a transitional problem because radio-active by-products are an inevitable outcome of nuclear fission only. Thermonuclear fusion in theory need produce no radioactive by-products. Contamination due to accident could occur but the single end product of the hydrogen-based fusion reaction itself (helium) is atomically stable. Thus when thermonuclear power comes in, the age of no-pollution will truly have dawned. Hydrogen is the ecologist's dream fuel. If the Arab oil embargoes hasten our conversion to hydrogen, this could well be enough to qualify the Arabs for canonisation into the ecologists' pantheon.

Another potentially limitless source of power is the sun itself. It has been calculated that five times as much solar energy falls on the roof of the average American house as is used in the form of electrical energy within that house. Except for considerations of cost, we could probably switch to this source of pollution-free power right now. Australia's empty deserts could become a great economic resource -- collecting solar energy every day of the year, converting it to electric power and using that power to produce hydrogen from seawater.

So the 'energy' part of the `minerals and energy crisis' is shown to be in fact no great problem at all. Energy may become substantially more expensive in the near future, but in the long term even this will scarcely be detectable in its influence on the steady upward rise of our living standards. We may have many short-term crises of man's deliberate creation (such as the Arab oil embargo), but all the energy we could ever want is there for us to use if that is what we really want to do. Any limitations are imposed by man, not by nature. Only the unforeseen is dangerous and that by its very nature we cannot plan for. All we can do is make sure that we have many alternate sources for the power we use and this is something that is going on apace. In the future, it is unlikely that the world will ever again let itself become as dependent on one source of fuel as it once did on Arab oil. When thermonuclear power comes in, sources of power will be as common as seawater. Any country with water will be self-sufficient in fuel.

To sum up, then, even without oil, our existing resources of coal and uranium are sufficient to provide us with energy for centuries to come, and long before that time runs out solar and thermonuclear power will have become commercially practicable. As an added bonus, reserves of coal and uranium tend to be located in politically stable countries, such as the U.S.A., Australia, Great Britain and Europe.

The situation with minerals is not remarkably different. Again we have a scenario of possible substitutions stretching into the indefinite future. Additionally, as the costs of particular minerals rise, so it will become more attractive to re-cycle them. One very versatile metal that has come into increasing use in the present century is aluminium. It presently finds a wide variety of uses including structural applications. In alloys such as 'duralumin' its one major disadvantage -- softness -- can also be overcome. In previous centuries it was used very little. Only when a method of extracting it cheaply from bauxite was invented did it become a resource. Now a method of extracting it from that most ubiquitous of materials-clay, has been perfected and a trial plant is already in operation. As it is the most plentiful metal in the earth's crust, this advance is an important one. One of the reasons aluminium is not more used is that it requires a great deal of electricity in its production. With the future advent of thermonuclear power, however, this should be no problem and the price of aluminium should drop greatly relative to other metals. When this happens, the effect will be to reserve our less abundant metals for applications where their peculiar properties are indispensable and aluminium will become the work-horse metal that iron is today. Since the day when we will run out of clay seems extraordinarily far off, there would appear to be no long term worries about the supply of aluminium. The metal of the future is underneath our feet.

No doubt, however, some clays will be better for producing aluminium than others. This is the point: the physical materials of the earth are available practically without limit: sand, clay, rock etc. Given the availability of power, the only decision we have to make is which ones to use. The technological possibilities are so wide that what we use is what is cheapest. We could still use other things if we have to. Take sand, for instance. Sand (silica) is the raw material for glass and with the invention of glass wool and fibreglass, the ways in which glass could be put to use are far greater than is at present economically attractive. Fifty years ago, for instance, who would have thought that suburban Australian fishermen would be putting to sea on weekends in boats made of glass? And yet it is nowadays something so common as to pass almost unnoticed. For all practical purposes, the availability of the materials of this planet for structural and other purposes can be treated as infinite. The only question ever is which ones we use.